Tag Archives: illegitimate children

Letters from the Grave: 1850s


Romney, George; A Hand Holding a Letter; Kendal Town Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-hand-holding-a-letter-143151

The curtain has but recently fallen on a touching drama of society, whose hero’s name I could give you if I chose. Though I suppress the chief actor’s name, the play has naught of fanciful construction, being really a natural series of terrible facts.

The personage in question, who is in the enjoyment of a high social position, a handsome establishment and a large fortune, had, as a consequence of a youthful folly, a natural daughter, whose mother died a few years after her seduction. The seducer, afterwards marrying, had not force of character enough to confess to his young wife the existence of this poor child, and having long confined himself to a mere mercenary care of the latter, he finally neglected her altogether.

The aged mother of this parvenu, being cognizant of the circumstances, was deeply moved by this abandonment, though she herself was barely supported by her snobbish son, in lodgings respectably distant from his own sumptuous hotel. But Madame N—–, the mother, who had in days gone by pinched herself to pay for her son’s education, and having nothing but the little pension she now received from him, nevertheless took all possible care of the forsaken child. And the child grew up to be a fine young girl capable of taking up some occupation. The occupation chosen was art.

Hortense, that was the girl’s name, applied herself to it with all her mind and heart, and struggled bravely against the many difficulties which society stupidly puts in the way of unmarried women in their efforts at self-support. She thus reached her twentieth year, her grandmother her seventy-eighth. While the father of one, the son of the other, gave magnificent balls, delicious dinners, vain fêtes in his rich hotel, the young girl and the old woman suffered the most cruel privations—the requests for a little supplementary aid from the rich man being often left unanswered.

One night the poor old woman died. At the simple funeral which he gave her the son necessarily came into contact with his daughter, and, glad of the chance to persuade himself that she now had a livelihood, departed, leaving her a trifling pecuniary assistance. A few weeks rolled by, and society’s whirlpool engulphed him deeper than ever.

Winter came. He gave a ball one night, and the salons of his hotel were crowded with the fashionables of the court and of the city. The rooms were dazzling with the light, the rich toilets, the French and foreign uniforms, the decorations, the gilded ceilings, the polished mirrors, the everything that could lend a lustre to the scene. The conservatory, lit up by colored lanterns, afforded little mysterious corners, where beautiful and romantic Polish women listened to the whisperings of love. The English ladies present danced with untiring gaiety; the daughters of Italy, listlessly extended on the sofas, kept up their flowery chat; the Parisiennes, with a Frenchwoman’s eye to good things, began to look for the magnificent supper which was to be served by Chevet. The rich man had the world in his salons. He revelled in ostentation and vanity, he was intoxicated with the great names announced at his door, his cup of pride was filled to the brim, and when ministers of state, with waistcoats bedizened with honorary orders, came to shake him by the hand, his delirium was not far from that when Cæsar, at the culmination of unheard-of power, exclaimed, “I feel myself a god.” Our parvenu mentally said, “I feel myself a duke.”

A group of guests had surrounded him, loading him down with praises of his fête as they sipped his delicious sherbets. A great foreign lady complimented him upon the completeness of his conservatory; an ambassador told him that his ball was the thousand and second night. The rich man, crammed with vanity, was fast losing his senses, when suddenly a valet de chambre enters, passes through the aristocratic circle, and presents to his exalted master a large letter on a golden salver.

The rich man, brusquely awakened from his dream, followed into his empyrean of pride, deprived of his aureole of glory, and nettled at being brought down to earth again by so vulgar a matter, exclaimed,

“You stupid rascal, idiot, donkey! could you not choose another time!”

And he pushed away the salver with an angry movement; but as the servant resisted a little, his eyes fell upon the peaceful cause of the disturbance, the letter, and in an instant he turned frightfully pale.

By his half-stifled cry, by the haggard eyes which he could not remove from that mysterious letter, every one about him saw that something extraordinary had occurred.

The guests politely drew aside, whispering to themselves, exchanging looks and words of surprise. Soon our Crœsus found himself alone with the valet in the middle of the salon, and still before his face the obstinately presented letter.

He had recognized in the address the handwriting of his mother, who had been dead eight months!

He seized the letter with a trembling hand and succeeded with difficulty in reaching the adjacent library, where he locked himself in, to the great surprise of his guests, who had followed his movements with wondering eyes. There he fell, rather than sat down on a sofa and looked at this terrible letter, sent him from the grave and bearing the unmistakable trace of a hand long since cold in death.

He summoned up all his strength, excitedly broke the black seal of the letter, and read as follows:

“My son, your daughter is suffering! her ill-requited labor does not suffice to keep want away from her door. In the midst of your opulence remember her. Your mother begs you to do it; your mother who is now looking upon you and knows what is passing in your heart.”

Then followed the signature.

In intense excitement the gentleman rang a bell; a servant answered it.

“Who brought this letter?” he asked.

The lackey replied that it was a young girl poorly clad, who had been nearly run over by the equipage of a Russian count, as it dashed into the courtyard of the hotel.

The host returned to his salon with a pale and troubled face; a cloud had settled over his fête, and his guests saw it without understanding the reason.

He retired early, before the party had broken up, but could not sleep, so strong a hold did the ghostly features of this demand from his dead mother take upon his imagination.

In the morning he sent two hundred francs to the young artist, who, in point of fact, had not money enough to buy bread to eat nor colors to work. What would this miserable sum do to rescue her from such distress? But the gentleman probably thought he had been very generous.

The winter past, he went to Italy.

Months went by, and the circumstance became erased from his mind. One evening at Naples, he had just returned with a brilliant company of tourists from an excursion to an island near by. As he entered his room he discovered on a table a letter bearing the Paris postmark. He opened it carelessly, continuing his chat with his friends. But suddenly he became agitated, turned away and left the room. It was another call from the grave; it was his mother again imploring aid for his child. Finally, several months after, in Paris, at his own house, as he was just stepping into his carriage for a drive in the Bois, another letter was handed him, another appeal, and this time more earnest, more imperious, more solemn than ever before.

He now determined to rid himself at once of the annoyance; he was becoming blasé to the emotion. He went to his lawyer and constituted in favor of Mademoiselle L—–, artiste, a life pension, just sufficient, if not to live on, at least to keep her from starving— exacting at the same time that he should have handed over to him in a lump all the letters which might yet remain in the hands of her who had received this trust so admirably conceived, so terribly made use of!

In fact, as you have, perhaps, all ready divined, the poor old mother dying had foreseen the future miseries of the young girl, for she well understood the character of her precious son. Hence, she had the sublime inspiration of the letters, and, thanks to them, the maiden—that child of love, protected by death—was snatched from a poverty so full of perils to one of her age—her sex, and, above all, her abandonment. 

Frank Leslie’s Weekly.22 October 1859.

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  What a pity that the shock occasioned by the letters from beyond the grave was not fatal. His daughter would then have had a claim upon his estate and could have lived happily ever after without repeated calls upon the cold charity of such a heedless father. A life pension “sufficient, if not to live on, at least to keep her from starving,” suggests that he had not learnt anything from the salutary letters. Mrs Daffodil hopes that his mother decided to appear in person, preferably in a state of advanced decomposition in a bloody shroud, a visit which might have proved more effective than writing.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



“You May Now Kiss the Ghost:” A Haunted Justice of the Peace: 1887

Day of the Dead Bride and Groom

Day of the Dead Bride and Groom


Two People Return from the Spirit World and Are Properly Married by a Justice of the Peace.

New York correspondence Cincinnati Enquirer: How remarkably the evidences of the existence of a spiritual sphere about us accumulate! Still they come, these spectral messengers, to teach us that there are more truths under the sun than science takes cognizance of. Here is another:

The village of Farmingdale, Queen’s County, Long Island, is a suburb of the rapidly growing city of Brooklyn. Its people are of the most conservative nature, mostly descendants from old Puritan fathers, who came here before the Revolution and Presbyterians almost to a man. All are very much excited at present over the occurrence of a remarkable spiritual manifestation that came to light without the presence in their midst of a medium. Three days ago the Enquirer correspondent received a letter from his aunt who lives in the village mentioned, requesting him to come down and hear the remarkable story. On arriving in Farmingdale the following is the story which he heard, and which is authenticated by the persons before whose eyes the strange event occurred:

John J. Powel, Esq., is civil magistrate for the village, or rather he is Justice of the Peace. He is a member in high standing of the church, and every way reliable. He is married and has several grown children. He lives in a large, old-fashioned house, surrounded by tall spruce and elm trees, with a high stone wall around the lawn. Last week, one night, he had retired to bed and got into a doze. Mrs. Powel was sleeping soundly. There was no light in the room, but the moon, half way up the sky, was sending a broad beam of ghostly light into the east window. Everything was as still as a country town usually is, but a slight moaning wind that tossed about the leafy spruce tree boughs. Suddenly Mr. Powel


From his doze. He had heard a door open. What could it be that had made the noise? He thought of thieves and quickly arose, and was pulling on his clothing when he heard a light tread of feet to his door. He stopped breathing in his anxiety for he thought he was about to be robbed. On came the tread to his door, which was quickly thrown wide open, and in an instant almost was closed again. Did any one enter? Mr. Powel asked himself, for he could see no one; but the doubt was soon settled in the affirmative. Something, at least, did enter, for he still heard the light tread of footsteps on the carpet approaching him, but could see nothing. Did his eyes belie him, or did he see two feet, without body, approaching? His hair, he says, bristled up and his spine  verily crept—a nameless horror seized him. Ghosts, thought he; is it possible that there are such things? Suddenly the tread passed into the broad moonbeam from the window. Now was the marvel revealed! The greenish moonlight lit up the outlines of two persons—shadows that were perfectly transparent, and seemed to reveal a ghostly gleam only on their outlines. A man and a woman—both young, both handsome—and as their spectral forms became more strongly materialized on passing out of the moonlight, Mr. Powel though he could recognize both their faces. Soon he was sure of it, and in a moment more they both confronted him, no longer looking like ghosts, however, and no one seeing them then would have believed that they were not entirely human; in fact, dwellers upon earth. In spite of what he had already seen, Mr. Powel began to think he was being played a trick upon, but on looking again, after rubbing his eyes, he saw that they could not be human, as both, to his certain knowledge, had been dead nearly a year. This only increased his horror, but he gathered strength to speak to them, which somehow he remembered was the proper thing to do on such an occasion.

“What—do—you want?” stammered he.


Was the answer, which the more greatly horrified the Squire.

“Married!” he echoed.

“Yes, married, and quickly, in the most binding form known to the law. We haven’t any time to lose, either.”

“But you must have at least one witness.” Said the squire, hoping he had found a good idea.

“Well, then, take Mrs. Powel,” said the would-be ghostly bridegroom; not waiting of the Squire to do so, he approached the bed and shook Mrs. Powel’s arm quite sharply. She at once awoke and on seeing such a strange sight, gave a piercing shriek. “Be still,” said the ghost. “You will not be hurt; you are needed for a few minutes.” By this time she had awakened and was looking at her husband. He returned her gaze as he says “without flinching,” and simply said, “My dear, those people want to be married, and you are needed as a witness.”

“What! Katie Baylis and John Van Sise here, and want to be married? La! I thought they had died more than a year ago!” Well, however, they are here now, and I’m going to hitch them as soon as I can dead or alive,” said the Squire growing desperate. “Shall I light the lamp?” “No, no!” said the ghosts, “for you can not see us if you do; but proceed at once with the marriage.” Squire Powel told the ghosts to join hands and stand before him. Then he proceeded with the usual formula until it came to “Until death do us part,” which was left out as unnecessary. Then the groom produced a blank marriage certificate, which all present signed, and which the bride put into her bosom.

“Is that all there is to it?” said the groom.

“Yes,” answered the Squire. “except the magistrate usually kisses the bride,” added he, forgetting the ghostly character of the contracting parties, and remembering, perhaps, occasions in which he had availed himself of this privilege. “Then the bride must be kissed,” said the groom. “This at once brought the Squire to his senses and made his hair raise again.


He echoed. The bride stepped forward at this, evidently thinking it an invitation. She brought her face to his, and with a desperate endeavor he gave her a proper kiss. As his lips met hers, he says, a terrible coldness seemed poured into him. He felt as though he was dying, but almost at once recovered himself. “Is there anything else?” asked the groom. “Nothing,” answered the Squire faintly. “And now I suppose you would both like to know what this is for. There is no reason why you should not. You already know the story of our guilty intercourse while we were alive on earth, and that it resulted in our deaths. We are now in the spirit world, which is far more like the earth than is usually supposed, only we have greater privileges and powers, but the man who does not marry while on earth cannot marry in the spirit form, and must live apart from  all the married, who inhabit a higher sphere and will in the end inherit greater powers than the unmarried, but I can’t explain this, as it is not to be revealed. However, when we died, we left a son, born to shame, and without our marriage, which you have solemnized, to be a bastard forever. As we are now, for the time being, in material form, we are able to contract marriage by the laws of mortals, and this marriage will be recorded as perfectly lawful by the Almighty.”

By the time he had finished this long speech he had perceptibly grown less material, and in a few minutes both bride and groom had faded away.

Such is the story which Mrs. Powel told on the next day, and her husband confirmed it in every particular.

The story of the lives of John Van Sise and Katie Baylis is quite romantic. John Van Sise was the son of a poor farmer in the neighborhood. Katie was the daughter of a well-to-do country gentleman, a retired merchant. They fell in love. Their parents were dead against their marriage, and it was the old story that followed. Love was too strong for parents or any other bonds. They met constantly. At last Katie gave birth to an illegitimate child, still alive. She died in child-birth. John died soon after of what was called by the neighbors hasty consumption, but his friends knew it was of a broken heart.

How strange Fate works!

Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 28 December 1887: p. 3

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The ghostly groom expresses some unusual theories about the post-mortem world, probably derived from the Theosophists or Spiritualists, although Matthew 22:30 tells us “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” The situation raises an interesting legal point: did the marriage of the two ghosts “in material form” legitimise their little son?


Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


The Foundlings of France: 1831 and 1857

A Mother depositing her child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris by Harry Nelson O'Neil 1817-1884

A Mother depositing her child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris by Harry Nelson O’Neil 1817-1884

The Foundling Hospital at Paris

No public edifice ever presented an appearance more in opposition to the painful reflections to which its mere existence gives rise, than the Foundling Hospital. You expect on entering, nothing but tears and disgust, and yet you scarcely hear the cries of the newly-born babes — you expect matter for dark philosophical emotion, and you see nothing around you but flowers, and good grey Sisters, and snow-white curtains, and crucifixes, to which you may add, the fruits of frailty, perhaps of crime. You walk between two rows of cradles, as in a flower-garden; only in the latter, nature gives to the orphan plants their proper nurture. Here you may see heads with flowing yellow ringlets, angel faces, a room poetically called the crib, a pretty little chapel, and a dissecting room. This edifice was formerly a convent of Oratorians; it is now a Foundling Hospital; — there are two centuries between these names. There is nothing remarkable in the building itself; it is like a college, a manufactory, a house in the street, or your father’s house. But I had almost forgotten a statue which you salute on entering. Vincent de Paule [the Founder] keeps watch in the vestibule of his temple….

On arriving at the outer door, I beheld a sort of box or cupboard with a double opening, one towards the street, and the other inside the building. It was much like the letter-box at a post-office; and the comparison is strengthened when we consider that a mother often dropped her child into it as she would a billet-doux, with this shade of difference, that the billet began the intrigue, and the child ended it. This box or cupboard is no longer used. Formerly the unhappy mother deposited there, mysteriously and at night, her new-born babe; then, after ringing the bell to awaken the sister on duty, she disappeared — her tears and her remorse still heard in the surrounding darkness. It is otherwise now — a singular abuse compelled the change. Dead bodies of children were often found in the cupboard, put there either to avoid the expense of burial or to conceal a crime. This mode of defrauding the guillotine and the undertaker, no longer exists. A sister sets up all night at the entrance of the parlour, and receives from the hand, the children that are brought to the hospital during her watch. The cupboard is closed, and its lock rusty. Besides, this mode has long since lost the charm of secrecy.

Women now take little pains to conceal their pregnancy, for mishaps are thought less of than formerly. Whether the child be born in a boudoir or in a garret, it is now a mere family affair, and amicably adjusted. The infant is taken to the hospital at noon day; it is even recommended to the kind attention of the Sisters; its father’s name is carefully repeated, and after a few tears the whole is forgotten. If, subsequently, the unhappy babe cry, expire, be cut to pieces by the anatomist, and its severed limbs sewn up in a canvas bag and consigned without ceremony to the earth, no matter, — family honour is safe; the mother goes either to a ball or to the Salpetriere; civilization continues its progress; surgical knowledge excites admiration, and we have lectures on political economy at the university. All this is admirable!

Sometimes — but instances are rare — the mother is heart stricken at the idea of a separation from her babe. Her hands tremble as she unrolls the swath; she sobs with agony as she strains to her bosom the child who shall never call her Mother. I have heard of affecting incidents, of heart-rending sorrows, and of entire dramas, whose forcible colouring imparts a vivid character to such scenes of painful excitement. Some poor girls of the working classes put a mark upon their babes; others, suspend from the neck of the little innocent, a chaplet, or an old ring tied to a ribbon. Others, again, mention a beloved name to the Sisters of the establishment, and entreat that the infant may bear that name. These unhappy mothers call every month, and every week, to ask how their children go on; — for they are not allowed to see them; nor are they allowed to take the bodies of such as die — these are the prey of the surgeon’s scalpel. Others, of these wretched females, unable to bear the separation, contrive, by an excusable deception, to get themselves hired as wet-nurses to the establishment, for the sole purpose of suckling their own babes….

There is a register, a simple register, in which is inscribed, at the entrance of each child, the most minute particulars attendant upon its arrival. In this register, for instance, is written, that the child was dressed in coarse linen, or in a fine frock trimmed with lace; or, again, that it was quite naked — that the parents, or mother, had wept, or had not wept. The words they spoke are taken down, and their regrets, their anxiety or indifference, and their general bearing, are recorded — the day and hour of the child’s arrival, its name (if it bore a name), and any disease with which it might be attacked, is minutely entered. This register, as you will observe, is filled with distinct and positive information. When the child dies, the date of its death is likewise added to the other particulars. This book, therefore, contains the most voluminous and precise annals of the most extraordinary history that ever existed. Moreover, these chronicles of an hospital, this great register of another species of national debt, is kept for a useful purpose. When the parents are desirous of withdrawing a child from the hospital, the old and stained pages of the register afford the means of identity. You purchase your recollections from this book; and you drive a hard bargain for the few words, which are all that remains in the world to establish the proof of your paternity. They are your son’s talisman. The employes of the hospital, therefore, entertain for this book the same respect as for a vestry register. They put on their gloves to open it—they consider it a precious relic. Make a sacrifice of gold, and its tabernacle will be opened unto you. Add twenty francs more, and you will obtain materials to write the extract. Nobody sees this book; the person in whose charge it is, locks it carefully into a cupboard. He is afraid of making the public acquainted with the golden mystery of its possession….

There is one fact to which I call the attention of the utilitarians. Compared with the other capitals of Europe, and in proportion to the number of its inhabitants, Paris is the city whose hospital receives, on a general average, the fewest foundlings. And yet, of all nations, France is the one which shows the most indifference in making these unfortunate beings useful members of society. In London the education of these orphan children partakes of the Franklin school, and of the hospitality of an industrious people. Correct manners, and even morals, are instilled into them; which is rare with us. I must add that the mothers are obliged to appear, prior to their accouchement, and declare their pregnancy, and although their names escape the dishonour of being registered, the shame of appearing beforehand, deters all but the most wretched and the most abandoned from availing themselves of the charity…. In France, scarcely have the foundlings passed the age of childhood, ere they are dismissed from the hospital. They are dispersed, whether they will or not, among the lowest classes, with the present of an imperfect education; and if one of them should, under his homely garments, feel the thrill of genius, and try to wrench off the helot’s collar, his choice would still be confined to the alternatives of a plane, or a spade, or starvation.

If I were to say that not one-half grow up to reap this inheritance, poor as it is, and that the remainder die from the privation of a mother’s milk, the uncertainty of science, and the infection of loathsome diseases, I should be far within the mark. At the present day, nearly three-fifths of the foundlings die in their first year. A fourth of the newly-born children perish during the first five days, and more than two-thirds after the first month. Five years after the day on which eight children had been deposited at the hospital, only three of them would be found alive. Extend the time to twelve years, and there is only one survivor…. It is, however, some consolation to learn, that the number of deaths decreases daily, and that the mortality of the hospital, at present, bears no proportion to what it was forty years ago. A single fact will prove this. Now-a-days, convenient carriages bring nurses to Paris from the country, and each Department has its foundling hospital. But can it be credited that, prior to the Revolution, the hospital in the metropolis was the only one in the kingdom, from all parts of which children were brought to Paris to receive a Life Ticket, which oftener turned out a certificate for death! A porter walked through the provinces, carrying upon his back a padded box containing three newly-born babes placed upright in it, supported by wadding, and breathing through a hole in the lid. This man quietly wended his way towards Paris, careless of dust, mud, the mid-day sun, or the bustle of inns. Now and then he stopped to take his meals and make his young companions suck a little milk. On opening the box, he sometimes found one of them dead. When this happened, he would throw the body by the road-side and continue his journey with the remainder. On his arrival he got a receipt for the goods delivered, without being answerable for accidents on the road.

If the present system has obliterated all traces of this deplorable practice, society is not proportionably benefited. In France, as in the other continental states, the direct ratio of the increase in the number of deserted children is progressive with the amelioration in the administration of these hospitals. This fact makes men doubt whether it would perhaps be better, for the healing of this social ulcer, if these children had either been strangled at their birth, left to expire, under the pangs of hunger, or with cold upon the street pavement. Such is the opinion of Malthus, the celebrated English economist, who has written an admirable work on Population. This terrible judgment is, however, not without appeal; but, on looking at the number of admissions into the Foundling Hospital at Paris, the mind cannot sometimes help coming to a conclusion in its favour. Paris: or, The book of the hundred-and-one, Volume 2, 1833

Just over twenty years later, the situation of French foundlings had not changed much:

Whenever a woman desires to abandon her child, she appears before a magistrate for that purpose; he is obliged to accept the child if she demands it. If she will keep it, he is impowered to give her aid. If the child is abandoned, the clothes are saved, or some token is kept, by which to maintain the identity of the child, and to enable the parents to reclaim it, if they wish to do so at any future time. In former times government made it easy for a mother to rid herself of her child —it being only necessary for her to take the child to the hospital during the night, place it in a box and ring the bell, when it was at once drawn into the institution and no questions asked. This arrangement was abolished some years ago, for the avowed reason that it encouraged vice, but really because such numbers of children were abandoned that the cost to the state was enormous. The crime of infanticide, however, has greatly increased since the change was made. The Medical World: A Journal of Universal Medical Intelligence, Volume 2 May 20, 1857, p. 199

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil has left out the portions where the author excoriates the fair sex for its weakness in producing these “fruits of frailty,” as he seems to labour under a misapprehension that the female of the human species can reproduce without assistance.

Mothers in 18th-century England who left their children at London’s Foundling Hospital also left tokens so that they could reclaim their child if their circumstances improved. These tokens–scraps of fabric, baby clothes, or other items–were saved and carefully noted in ledgers. Some of these poignant items are now on display at the “Threads of Feeling” exhibition at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum on West Francis Street in Colonial Williamsburg. Formerly shown at the Foundling Museum in London, the DeWitt Wallace is the only venue for the exhibit in the United States.